Foto: Pola Rojan Bagger

Strong women are driving progress in Jordan

In a remote desert village in Jordan, young Jordanians are fighting for equality between boys and girls. ‘When you educate the girls, you are, in the long run, educating the entire community,’ says 24-year-old Anoud Al Younes, an entrepreneur from Azraq.

A handful of listless camels and the asphalt on the road are the only things that break the monotony of the enormous savannah landscape. The 90-minute drive from the Jordanian capital Amman feels like an eternity when there is nothing but sand and rock to rest your eyes on.

The desert in the eastern part of Jordan is almost four times the size of  the Danish island of Funen. In the middle of this desert landscape lies the town of Azraq. Azraq is  constructed around an ancient historical oasis that has given life to settlements for millennia.

Archaeological finds indicate that the area may have been inhabited as far back as 20,000 years ago. Today, Azraq houses well over 10,000 inhabitants.

Anoud runs a low cost homework cafe for vulnerable children on the roof of her mothers house. She insists on teaching girls and boys together. Photo: Pola Rojan Bagger

One of them is 24-year-old Anoud Al Younes. This energetic young woman is a familiar face in this small town, where she was born and raised. During the past seven years, Anoud has run Azraq’s largest private homework café from the roof of her mother’s house. It all began as a volunteer project to help children from poor families. Today the cafe is Anoud’s way of making a living.

Cheap homework help for the poorest children

Alongside her business, Anoud continues her education in civic activism. She is one of about 50 other young people in the town, who since June have been receiving ‘capacity-building training’ at ActionAid ARI, an Amman-based sister organisation of Mellemfolkelig Samvirke (MS).

By educating women, you are educating the entire society.”

Anoud Al Younes
Participating in ActionAid’s capacity-building training

The aim of the program is to provide training to selected young people from parts of Azraq with a focus on how to create small social changes in their communities.

The training period lasts about a week and Includes lessons in  gathering and analysing interviews from members of the local community, the art of speaking to large groups, political understanding, social mobilisation, and organising volunteer groups.

After the intensive training course, the young participants begin their own campaign process where they deal with an issue that they would like to address in an activist way.

The city of Azrag is situated in the middle of a big desert in eastern Jordan. Photo: Pola Rojan Bagger

Anoud, with her private homework café, already has extensive experience in social mobilisation. She was originally educated as a city

planner two years ago, but her main focus is on the 150 youngsters between the ages of six and eighteen whom she teaches and tutors on the roof of her mother’s two-story house.

‘In terms of the number of pupils, we are actually the largest school in Azraq,’ she says with a huge smile. Anoud is particularly passionate about changing the conditions for the young girls in her local community.

Saying ‘No’ to gender-segregated classes

As elsewhere in Jordan, the conservative gender norms favouring men’s position predominate amongst the locals in Azraq. Anoud elaborates: ‘Many parents and prominent members of the community have asked me if I could make the classes gender segregated. But that will never happen. Children are first and foremost friends before they are girls and boys. They should be in the same classes and get to know each other. The girls should not be raised with a notion that they are worth less than the boys.’.

Each year. Anoud selects one girl who will receive free tutoring for twelve months. And all five of her employees are women.

‘When educating women, you help educate all of society. If mothers inour society better understand the world around them and their own community, they will pass it on to their children. And over the long run, it can change the whole society,’ says Anoud.

The poor families need me. That’s why they accept my conditions about having mixed-gender classes.”

Anoud Al Younes
Participant, ActionAid training program

One of Anoud’s tactics is to keep the children close to her despite occasional resistance from conservative families; therefore, she charges only very modest rates for her tutoring services.

‘The poor families need me. That’s why they accept my conditions about mixed gender classes. If we want to influence people towards a better path, you have to start when they are children,’ she says.

Festival encounters scepticism

Her fellow student at ActionAid training, Mothaffar Al Shomari, also wants to use his new skills to change gender perceptions in Azraq. Mothaffar is eighteen years old and has just graduated. For now, heis helping his father organize the town’s annual cultural festival, which has been ongoing for 25 years.

Far too many see the festival as something dangerous.”

Mothaffar Al Shomari
Participant, ActionAid training program

Each year, the festival attracts hundreds of locals and visitors to Azraq to celebrate the local culture, which is renowned for its rich culinary and craft traditions. Azraq is known for its jewellery workshops. But many conservative families stay away from the festival because they feel it violates local norms and traditions, Mothaffar explains. ‘Far too many see the festival as something dangerous. Something you should stay away from because it is harmful to young people when girls and boys are together in a public space where there is music and partying. They don’t think it is suitable for girls to attend events like this without their cousins, brothers or fathers,’ he says.

Mothaffar wants to challenge the way many conservative families in Azraq think. He believes his own generation is more open to the outside world and that change is already underway. Photo: Pola Rojan Bagger

By teaming up with other young people from the training programme, Mothaffar wants to challenge this way of thinking. But he admits that it is a huge struggle to take on, and he is somewhat uncertain how to go about it.

‘But the ambition alone can sometimes be beneficial. You can’t just do nothing. And if I didn’t think it was any use, I wouldn’t get involved   with ActionAid or spend my free time on training courses at all,’ he says, extending his arms.

A new generation of Jordanians

Times are changing, and this pushes the kind of changes desired by Mothaffar and the others from the ActionAid training course. Mothaffar points out that the world has become smaller:

‘My generation is much more open-minded, more focused on the outside world than our parents. We are also far more socially open to social media than they are. I think that means that we are more open-minded and less judgmental in areas like family relationships and gender relations.’

Their new skills give them support to do something productive.”

Saba Yassin
Program manager
Anoud is a trained landscape architect, but it is more important for her to teach the 150 students who benefit from her homework cafe. Photo: Pola Rojan Bagger

But the young people still need tools to create the progress they want. And through the ActionAid training course, they can obtain these tools. ActionAid program manager Saba Yassin explains:  ‘We call it “capacity building” because young people need to strengthen their social skills in, among other things, leading a group to achieve a goal, to become better at communicating and to think more creatively in a productive way.”

And when addressing the question of how the ActionAid training can help social change, Saba is unequivocal:  the individual person becomes strengthened to become the initiator of social change.

‘Young people achieve greater insight into both themselves and the local community. And their new skills give them a backstop to do something productive. It makes them more reflected, conscious citizens and human beings. And it can push the boundaries for many,’ she says.

But the ambitions for the training are not just local. Morten Gøbel Poulsen, program manager for the Middle East-North Africa region at Mellemfolkelig Samvirke, explains that  the new skills can make a difference at the national level as well: ‘In addition to taking action on their own to create social change, it is also important that young people seek to influence local decisions and authorities to take into account their demands and needs. So this is  a major  part of the purpose of the training.’